Project Loon Provides Internet Access in Underserved Areas

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SEATTLE — As of 2018, nearly half of the world’s population remains offline. As online communication and financial services become increasingly vital to economic opportunity around the world, this fact only becomes more troubling. However, Project Loon is one of several companies working to do something about internet access in underserved areas — using balloons.

Loon is still in its early stages but aims to operate a fleet of autonomous solar-powered balloons flying around the world, providing internet access to areas that more traditional satellites haven’t reached. The balloons float in the stratosphere, using advanced guidance systems to move them where they need to be and keep them there.

While the Loon team is still working on the technology and partnerships needed to take the system globally, the balloons have already begun to make an impact.

Early Success

In 2013, Project Loon delivered internet access for the first time—to a sheep farmer in New Zealand. For the next several years, Loon continued to refine their systems using small-scale tests. In July of 2018, however, the company announced it would be launching a larger project to provide LTE coverage to Kenya.

Kenya’s population is already steadily connecting to the internet—43 million out of 50 million Kenyans have cell phone subscriptions while 33 million have access to cellular data. The country’s average mobile internet speeds are also among the highest in the world.

Despite these encouraging statistics, large parts of the country remain unserved or underserved by internet providers. The difficulties are especially pronounced in Kenya’s mountainous central regions. Project Loon plans to bring connectivity to these areas and it is making quick progress. Construction began on the ground stations necessary to connect the balloons in 2018, and should be finished in 2019. It’s likely that thousands of rural Kenyans are only months away from having consistent internet access for the first time.

Disaster Response

While Loon was envisioned as a long-term network spanning the globe, it has recently proven to be just as effective in providing support to victims of natural disasters. The Loon system was being tested in Peru in January of 2017 when severe floods struck the country and destroyed the homes of more than 700,000 people. Thanks to partnerships with telecommunication companies in the region, Loon was able to provide internet to the victims for months after the disaster.

Loon’s balloons were also called into action after Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s internet infrastructure in late 2017. By November, Loon had restored access to around 100,000 Puerto Ricans. Today, around half a dozen balloons continue to serve twice that number.

In contrast to traditional methods which take months to respond to crises, Loon was able to begin providing aid within weeks. This is a sign that Loon has the potential to work with disaster-prone areas and provide quick response to future emergencies.

Other Partnerships

There is certainly no guarantee that fleets of balloons will be providing access to billions in the near future. Loon is still in the early stages, after all, and it’s not the only young company trying to push an internet breakthrough for the world’s most underserved countries. That said, Loon’s new technology continues to advance and draw in promising partnerships.

In late January, Project Loon announced that they were partnering with Telesat—a Canadian satellite company. For Loon, the deal provides a steady revenue source for the future. Telesat, meanwhile, plans to adapt the software Loon uses to control its balloons to help advance its own system of low-orbit satellites. Telesat’s satellites are also designed to provide access to underserved regions. The Canadian company plans for them to begin serving customers by 2022.

As poor internet connectivity remains a roadblock to lifting developing nations and their citizens out of poverty, it is encouraging to see innovative technologies and new partnerships joining to tackle the problem. Both through its own balloons and through other companies’ use of its software, Project Loon appears to be a notable part of the solution going forward.

Josh Henreckson
Photo: Pixabay

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